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Cream of the Crop : Herewith, an opinionated guide to some of the most dessert-worthy frozen treat parlors the Valley has to offer.

August 20, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nothing surpasses a cool, creamy ice cream cone on a hot summer night, especially here in the balmy Southland. French gastronome Brillat- Savarin once referred to ice cream as the most perfect and wonderful of all desserts. We'll take the liberty to include frozen yogurt in this assessment.

Let us, however, go into the relationship with both eyes open. Frozen yogurt has replaced ice cream for many of us because it is low in the C-word--cholesterol. But who among us would dare claim that yogurt has the rich, smooth taste of premium ice cream? The numbers speak for themselves. Four fluid ounces of nonfat yogurt has about 100 calories. Premium ice cream often has three times that many.

So let the buyer beware. When a product that calls itself "lite" ice cream tells you it is 94% fat-free, remember that it is also 6% fat. Furthermore, the rich, eye-catching toppings that yogurt stores bank on to increase sales contain as much or more calories as a small scoop of ice cream.

The editors asked me to conduct tastings in locations far and wide, and that's just what I did, visiting ice cream and yogurt parlors from Glendale to Agoura Hills.

This selection is only a smattering, but it represents a piece of what is out there. I didn't include many of the larger franchises--Swensen's, Baskin-Robbins and Haagen-Dazs--since they are ubiquitous and familiar to most of us. And I should add that for me, the ne plus ultra of local ice cream parlors is still Alhambra's Fosselman's, where they have been hand-churning incredibly good stuff since the turn of the century.

Thrifty

Although I have avoided most of the commercial ice creams, it is still impossible to ignore the humble 55-cent drum-shaped scoop at your local Thrifty Drug. This is, simply stated, the best ice cream value I know of in the USA, and possibly on Earth.

What's more, my friends and I agree that Thrifty ice cream holds it own among its more expensive peers. Try rocky road, with a slightly bitter chocolate taste that some might call sophisticated, or butter pecan, shot through with generous chunks of nut. More tried-and-true flavors such as chocolate and vanilla get mixed evaluations. The chocolate has an appealing, bittersweet tang, but the vanilla is weak on vanilla flavor. Still, at these prices, not even a purists have the right to complain.

Ben & Jerry's

I have to defer to Ben & Jerry's. This ultrarich, super-high-quality product belongs at the top of the commercial heap.

The Sherman Oaks store, strategically located in the relentlessly upscale Oak Ridge Plaza, simply reeks of affluence and political correctness. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started this operation in a converted gas station. Today, it is an international giant with fingers in several activist pies and stores as far away as Israel and Russia.

The great flavors, often containing as much as 24% butterfat, don't exactly hurt business either. Some of those sampled: Wavy Gravy (caramel and Brazil nut ice cream with chocolate toffee chunks swirled with caramel fudge), Chunky Monkey (banana ice cream with walnuts and dark chocolate) and Rain Forest Crunch (its own cottage industry of French vanilla ice cream with chunks of rain-forest cashew and Brazil nut brittle and, believe it or not, peach).

Whew! What ever became of plain old chocolate chip? As an aside, the company's sensational Cherry Garcia is about the best frozen yogurt flavor on the planet, but don't fret. It is also available in regular ice cream.

Five San Fernando Valley locations: 12318 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks , (818) 789-9951; 119 N. Maryland Ave., Glendale , (818) 545-0445; 164 E. Palm Ave., Burbank , (818) 566-7602; 16101 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 788-4462 , and 29041 Agoura Road, Agoura Hills, (818) 879-1798. Call for store hours. Small (about 4 oz.) , $1.70; large (about 8 oz.) , $2.95.

Dips and Scoops

This small Agoura Hills parlor is unremarkable but for the fact that it is one of the Valley's few remaining places to get the excellent Carvel products, both the famous soft serve and Carvel's hard ice creams.

I used to eat Carvel's creamy, off-yellow frozen custard as a child in New England, and I believe it puts Foster Freeze to shame in both depth of flavor and texture. Try Carvel's hard ice creams, too, ones like full-flavored raspberry, coffee chip and chocolate brownie. They also make an ice cream sandwich-like treat called Flying Saucers, which comes in a variety of flavors and colors.

Dips and Scoops also sells a fine premium San Francisco ice cream called Bud's, which has something of a cult in the Bay Area. Bud's is very rich and comes in such flavors as Bud's zooka, mocha bean crunch and pecan praline. The company also manufactures something called San Francisco Lite, 97 calories per fluid ounce, and 94% fat-free. Try almond joy, which really does taste like the candy bar, and the very good chocolate raspberry truffle.

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